Stereotypes. I think we’re all guilty of succumbing to stereotypes at one time or another, and when it comes to okra, none is guiltier than I am. To me, okra was deeply woven into the tapestry of Southern cooking, “fixed” in the same kitchen as black-eyed peas, grits and jambalaya. Okra was a vegetable that you ate while visiting your great-aunt in Alabama, sitting on a wraparound porch, drinking sweet tea and talking sweeter. Whether okra played a role in other cuisines never crossed my mind. When I learned that Okra and Tomatoes was one of Sam’s favorite Pakistani dishes, the stereotype I held of okra crumbled.
As it turns out, okra, or bhindi, is a common summer vegetable in Pakistan, Northern India and even all throughout Asia. A trip to the Farmers’ Market confirmed okra’s inclusion in the Asian vegetable club: it was set right alongside bitter melon, jujubes, yardlong beans and other vegetables I have never eaten let alone seen before.
The first time we brought okra home, I cringed when Sam called them lady fingers. If these were lady fingers, then this was one lady I hoped I’d never meet: the slender okra was green and slightly fuzzy. Slicing the okra did little to improve my impression: clear slime oozed from the slices, coating the cutting board with a slippery layer.
Despite these complaints, we continued to buy okra every week at the Farmers’ Market while it was in season. Eventually I learned to wipe the cutting board clean if it got too slippery, and the fuzziness of the okra? Well, that’s no different than the fuzz on a peach. I still cringe when I hear okra called lady fingers, but I have to admit okra provides a welcome dinnertime deviation from the usual salad greens, broccoli and zucchini. And as a one-dish dinner that can be on the table in 45 minutes, I think I’ll let the stereotype I held of okra rest in peace and embrace the virtues—and oddities—of this vegetable.
For seasoning, I like to use this Pakistani spicy vegetable curry mix. Sold for only $.99 at an Indian grocery store, this spice mix transforms a classic Southern vegetable into an ethnic specialty. Bhindi is traditionally served with homemade roti, but whole-wheat pita bread is a suitable substitute.
Serves four as an entree
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion (½ lb.), diced
1 ½ pounds fresh okra, sliced into ½–inch thick pieces
2 tablespoons vegetable curry mix (like this one)
1/8 -1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
4 large plum tomatoes (1 lb.), diced
¼ cup water
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
roti or whole-wheat pita bread, to serve
Make the Okra and Tomatoes
1. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. When oil is hot, add the onions and sauté until soft and beginning to brown, about 6-8 minutes.
2. Increase heat to medium, stir in the okra and continue cooking for 6-8 more minutes until okra begins to soften and brown, stirring occasionally.
3. Sprinkle the curry mix over the onions and okra and stir well. For spicier curry, add cayenne 1/8 teaspoon at a time.
4. After 1 minute, stir in the tomatoes and mix well. If the tomatoes are not juicy or the juice evaporates quickly, add up to ¼ cup water so the vegetables don’t stick to the pan while cooking. Cook the vegetables for about 20 minutes longer, until the okra is cooked through and the flavors have melded. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Garnish okra and tomatoes with ginger and serve with warmed roti or pita bread.